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With > Against is Turning Up the Level of Competition in Kona

A new campaign started by two age-groupers asks: Do you see yourself racing with your competition, or against them – and how does that attitude impact your performance?

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Whether you race to compete for a top spot or set your sights more on completing the distance, the fact is that you’re not alone out there on the course. You’ve got competition. The question is, do you see yourself racing with your competition, or against them – and how does that attitude impact your performance?

That’s something that triathletes Vanessa Foerster and Lauren Vallee are asking triathletes – especially those competing in the women’s field – to consider with their With > Against campaign.

This movement came about when Foerster, a certified life coach who focuses on teaching athletes to build mental endurance (and a Triathlete contributor on the topic), posted on Instagram about the power of racing with, not against, the competition. The concept struck a chord with Vallee, the USAT Level II Coach behind Valiant Endurance, who then floated the idea of creating a symbol to show other racers that, although she was giving her all, she wasn’t against them.

Make no mistake – this is not a soft campaign. They are not encouraging anybody to hold hands and skip across the finish line. But, they also want athletes to understand there’s no need to put others down to lift themselves up. “We want a fierce battle of each individual’s best on the day,” Foerster said. “We believe that in the world of endurance sport, if each athlete is racing with genuine confidence in themselves, their ability and their worth, then the competition is there to bring out their best.”

“We are trying to turn up the level of competition in the women’s amateur field,” added Vallee. So, while there is plenty of well-meaning messaging in the racing world about community over competition; competition is what they’re looking to elevate.

“This movement is about giving athletes in the women’s field not only permission, but encouragement to be excellent regardless of finish time or placement,” Vallee said. “As an athlete, I am explicitly stating I will not quit on myself because that robs myself and my competition of a race.” And that’s the case whether you’re aiming for a podium spot or not. “So often, the focus on who makes the podium, but there are so many races within the broader race,” she added. “The more bravely those races are fought, the whole women’s field starts to elevate.”

RELATED: Build Your Ability to Dig Deep in Competition

The power of separating worth from external results

Women enter the water at the start of an Ironman. With > Against hopes to elevate competition in triathlon
(Photo: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

Of course, this shift in mindset isn’t necessarily an easy one to make; in fact, Foerster acknowledged that coaches herself on it frequently – and she understands why.

“As humans, we are designed for connection to others, and as athletes we often inadvertently seek connection through damaging comparison,” she said. “One way this shows up is when an athlete attaches their self-worth to race results. It’s sneaky because our brains love to use external measurements (like results, times, placements) to calculate value or good enough-ness. On top of that, this is reinforced by cultural parallels like promotions, titles, salaries, etc.,” she explained. “In racing, if an athlete does not hit a time goal, podium or qualification, then they feel resentment towards their competition for achieving what they wanted. I work with a lot of athletes on this. We work to separate worth and external results so that they can race from a more regulated place. This opens the door for them to also see that racing with their competition is greater than racing against.”

Not only does this have the power to improve each athlete’s individual experience, but Vallee also hopes that widespread adoption of this understanding will help to improve the sport as a whole, particularly for those racing in the women’s field. “I wonder how many athletes might leave our sport, defeated and deflated, rather than uplifted and feeling powerful for what they accomplished,” she said. “In my mind, more women entering the sport, keeping more athletes racing for longer, and encouraging women of color to race triathlon is very important to the longevity of our sport and to the spirit of our sport.”

And there’s no question that every step toward gender equality in our sport matters because, it takes generations to make lasting change. “It will take many more years to conquer the problem of sexism in sport, but our hope is that this movement will support facilitating that change with the triathlon,” she said. “We want to see more women and those who identify as nonbinary on start lines. Period. We believe this movement shows that there is a place for all of us. Let’s take up space and show the world we’re here to race.

“As the saying goes, the best time was yesterday and the next best time is now,” she continued. “This is the kind of messaging Lauren and I needed to hear years ago. We have both seen and felt a tremendous difference in our racing since adopting this. We want that for more athletes. There is no better time than coinciding with the  at the Ironman World Championships this year.”

RELATED: Women Celebrate a Long-Awaited Two-Day Format and Equal-Size Fields in Kona

How to participate in and support With > Against efforts

Two women wear With > Against Merch
Vanessa Faye Foerster (L) and Lauren Vallee (R) sport With > Against merchandise.

So, what does this look like in the real world? For starters, those who are in Kona this year can pick up free With > Against temporary tattoos at the Wyn Republic tent at Ironman Expo; they’re working to secure a second pick up location, and will share any updates on With > Against Instagram account.

“I used to say, ‘Yeah!’ or, ‘Great pace!’ if a competitor in my field passed me in a race. I was genuine in my enthusiasm for that athlete, and it was important for me to feel like I had to acknowledge that person’s excellence because I know how hard this sport is,” Vallee said. “What I’ve found is that it takes energy for me to communicate this while I am in the midst of my own race and I want to reserve my energy for taking the next step. By wearing a temporary tattoo, I am saying ‘HELL YEAH!’ to you, without verbalizing it with my mouth. It’s my way of letting my competitors know I respect you. I see you.”

They’re also selling a limited run of white trucker hats, women’s tank tops, and unisex tees with the With > Against logo, with profits from those sales benefiting the Naugatuck Triathlon Team and Fund Her Tri. 

Still, this campaign was never just about Kona or those racing at the World Championships. “It was always about elevating the field of every race,” Foerster said. “We hope this becomes a style of racing athletes adopt no matter when and where they race. We want to see the temporary tattoos at every start line – and we believe that’s possible.”

“Vanessa and I started this with the simple goal of sharing how this attitude is possible for anyone,” Vallee said. She hopes they’ll continue to not only produce the tattoos, but also gear so they can keep raising money for non-profits that are bringing new athletes to the sport – and she also hopes that big teams support that campaign, perhaps even licensing their logo for use on their kits in exchange for a donation to one of their identified non-profits.

But while they have big plans to discuss the future of the movement post-Kona, right now, she said, they both want to give their best on the Big Island. And they hope you do, too.

Got questions? Want to get involved? They invite you to follow the the With > Against account on Instagram.

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